How Information Architecture helps create environments that are understandable and useable by human beings.
Register for the O’Reilly Design Conference, which will be held January 19-22, 2016, in San Francisco. Jorge Arango will be speaking at the event about information architecture and semantic environments.
Editor’s note: This post is an excerpt from “Information Architecture, 4th Edition,” by Jorge Arango, Louis Rosenfeld, and Peter Morville.
We only understand things in relationship to something else. The frame around a painting changes how we perceive it, and the place the frame is hanging in changes it even more: we understand an image displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art differently than one hanging in a shared bathroom in a ratty hotel. Context matters.
When designing an information architecture, we are engaging in a new type of placemaking: one that alters how we perceive and understand information. As with (building) architects, information architects are concerned with creating environments that are understandable and useable by human beings, and which can grow and adapt over time to meet their needs and those of their organizations.
In the previous chapter, we saw how the lens of information architecture can help designers make stuff easier to find by setting it in structures made of language. Now, we’ll explore how these structures can make stuff more understandable by molding the context that we perceive it in.
A sense of place
You get out of bed. You stumble clumsily to the bathroom for a morning toilet, then walk to the kitchen to brew a cup of coffee and toast some bread. It’s not even 6 a.m. yet, and you have already transversed three distinct places with different uses and configurations: bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. Read more…
An IA model informed by an "information ecology" composed of users, content, and context.
Download a free copy of “The New Design Fundamentals” ebook, a curated collection of chapters from our Design library. Note: this post is an excerpt from “Information Architecture,” 4th Edition, by Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville, and Jorge Arango, which is included in the curated collection.
Users. Content. Context. You’ll hear these three words again and again throughout this book. They form the basis of our model for practicing effective information architecture design. Underlying this model is a recognition that you can’t design useful information architectures in a vacuum. An architect can’t huddle in a dark room with a bunch of content, organize it, and emerge with a grand solution. It simply won’t hold up against the light of day.
Websites, intranets, apps, and other information environments are not lifeless, static constructs. Rather, there is a dynamic, organic nature to both the information systems and the broader contexts in which they exist. This is not the old world of yellowing cards in a library card catalog. We’re talking complex, adaptive systems with emergent qualities. We’re talking rich streams of information flowing within and beyond the borders of departments, business units, institutions, and countries. We’re talking messiness and mistakes, trial and error, survival of the fittest.
We use the concept of an “information ecology” composed of users, content, and context to address the complex dependencies that exist. And we draw upon our trusty Venn diagram (see Figure 2–6) to help people visualize and understand these relationships. The three circles illustrate the interdependent nature of users, content, and context within a complex, adaptive information ecology. Read more…
Jorge Arango discusses the state of IA and the importance of designers' understanding of context and perspective.
Jorge Arango is an information architect who has been practicing in the user experience field for more than 20 years. Before moving to San Francisco about a year ago, his work was conducted in Panama. Last year, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and now works as a partner at Futuredraft, a digital product design consultancy. Arango brings a unique perspective, given his background in architecture prior to becoming an information architect. He is currently finishing up the 4th Edition of Information Architecture — lovingly referred to as “The Polar Bear book” — with Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville.
IA’s broadening appeal
Information architecture (IA) has always been an important part of user experience design, though not always acknowledged as such. With the emergence of social, IoT, and mobile, we have watched IA taking on a more dominant role in product development. Arango talked a bit about the evolution:
I’m surprised by how many people actually know about it because I think, frankly, a lot of what we do is fairly esoteric. I’m not just talking about information architects. I’m talking about those of us in technology in general, and in the design professions. On having moved to California, I have this open question in my mind: how much do people know about this stuff here? Is it something that is talked about? I’ve been pleasantly surprised by interactions with clients and prospects … There seems to be a realization. In many cases, they probably don’t know to call it ‘information architecture’ per se, but there seems to be a realization that stuff needs to be easy to find and easy to understand.
Andrew Hinton on making context understandable, smart devices, and programming literacy.
I sat down with Andrew Hinton, an information architect at The Understanding Group and author of the recently released O’Reilly book Understanding Context. Our conversation included a discussion of information architecture’s role in the context of the IoT, the complexities of context, and the well-debated “everyone should learn to code” argument.
Context, information architecture, and experience design
Information architecture (IA) has always been a critical part of creating great products and services, and many would argue that, until now, it hasn’t been given the attention or respect it deserves. The need for thoughtful IA is increasing as we enter the multimodal world of IoT. Whether you call yourself an Information Architect or Designer, you need to care about context. Hinton offers up this hidden motivation for writing Understanding Context:
“I’ll confess, the book is a bit of a Trojan horse to kind of get people to think about information architecture differently than maybe the way they assume they should think about it.”
I followed up with Hinton via email for a bit more on how we need to view IA:
“People tend to assume IA is mainly about arranging objects, the way we arrange cans in a cupboard or books in a library. That’s part of it, but the Internet has made it so that we co-exist in places made of semantic and digital information. So when we create or change the labels, relationships, and rules of those places, we change their environment. Not just on screens, but now outside of screens as well. And, to me, the central challenge of that work is making context understandable.”
The imbrication of digital and analog environments is bringing us to a revolutionary information crossroads.
In the first two posts in this series, I examined the connection between information architecture and user interface design, and then looked closely at the opportunities and constraints inherent in information architecture as we’ve learned to practice it on the web. Here, I outline strategies and tactics that may help us think through these constraints and that may in turn help us lay the groundwork for an information architecture practice tailored and responsive to our increasingly connected physical environments.
The challenge at hand
NYU Media, Culture, and Communication professor Alexander Galloway examines the cultural and political impact of the Internet by tracing its history back to its postwar origins. Built on a distributed information model, “the Internet can survive [nuclear] attacks not because it is stronger than the opposition, but precisely because it is weaker. The Internet has a different diagram than a nuclear attack does; it is in a different shape.” For Galloway, the global distributed network trumped the most powerful weapon built to date not by being more powerful, but by usurping its assumptions about where power lies.
This “differently shaped” foundation is what drives many of the design challenges I’ve raised concerning the Internet of Things, the Industrial Internet and our otherwise connected physical environments. It is also what creates such depth of possibility. In order to accommodate this shape, we will need to take a wider look at the emergent shape of the world, and the way we interact with it. This means reaching out into other disciplines and branches of knowledge (e.g. in the humanities and physical sciences) for inspiration and to seek out new ways to create and communicate meaning. Read more…
As we begin to design for the Internet of Things, we'll need to expand our IA approach — and our toolbox.
In an earlier post in this series, I examined the articulatory relationship between information architecture and user interface design, and argued that the tools that have emerged for constructing information architectures on the web will only get us so far when it comes to expressing information systems across diverse digital touchpoints. Here, I want to look more closely at these traditional web IA tools in order to tease out two things: (1) ways we might rely on these tools moving forward, and (2) ways we’ll need to expand our approach to IA as we design for the Internet of Things.
First stop: the library
The seminal text for Information Architecture as it is practiced in the design of online information environments is Peter Morville’s and Louis Rosenfeld’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, affectionately known as “The Polar Bear Book.”
First published in 1998, The Polar Bear Book gave a name and a clear, effective methodology to a set of practices many designers and developers working on the web had already begun to encounter. Morville and Rosenfeld are both trained as professional librarians and were able to draw on this time-tested field in order to sort through many of the new information challenges coming out of the rapidly expanding web.
If we look at IA as two faces of the same coin, The Polar Bear Book focuses on the largely top-down “Internet Librarian” side of information design. The other side of the coin approaches the problems posed by data from the bottom up. In Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, David Weinberger argues that the fundamental problem of the “second order” (think “card catalogue”) organization typical of library sciences-informed approaches is that they fail to recognize the key differentiator of digital information: that it can exist in multiple locations at once, without any single location being the “home” position. Weinberger argues that in the “third order” of digital information practices, “understanding is metaknowledge.” For Weinberger, “we understand something when we see how the pieces fit together.”
Emerging IoT technologies require a carefully considered approach to integration, implementation, and user interface.
Just when it seems we’re starting to get our heads around the mobile revolution, another design challenge has risen up fiercer and larger right behind it: the Internet of Things. The rise in popularity of “wearables” and the growing activity around NFC and Bluetooth LE technologies are pushing the Internet of Things increasingly closer to the mainstream consumer market. Just as some challenges of mobile computing were pointedly addressed by responsive web design and adaptive content, we must carefully evaluate our approach to integration, implementation, and interface in this emerging context if we hope to see it become an enriching part people’s daily lives (and not just another source of anger and frustration).
It is with this goal in mind that I would like to offer a series of posts as one starting point for a conversation about user interface design, user experience design, and information architecture for connected environments. I’ll begin by discussing the functional relationship between user interface design and information architecture, and by drawing out some implications of this relationship for user experience as a whole. Read more…
Ben Huh's new project focuses on news presentation. Here he talks about who's doing it well.
Ben Huh, the CEO of Cheezburger, Inc., loves his Cheezburger project but is ready to engage in a fling with news. Huh's new Moby Dick project will address the limitations and frustrations of stagnant news presentation. In this short interview, Huh discusses news outlets that are headed in the right direction.
Tweets as Ads, Do Not Track, OnePage Site, and Lessons Learned
(the author apologizes for the late publication of this item)
- Twitter’s Biggest Problem: Tweets are Ads — having just been to my first social media marketing conference, I see what the author’s talking about. Would you want to pay for advertising in the middle of a sea of free ads? (via Hacker News)
- Safari and Do Not Track Support — now that there’s a technical mechanism for consumers to opt out, the next step is to mandate that publishers respect it. Problem: compliance with do-not-track is largely invisible, so there’s nothing like the feedback loop you get with Do Not Call lists where ANY telemarketer is instantly identifiable as a lawbreaker. Instead, you’ll only know Do Not Track is not working if you see useful advertisements. What the–?
- OnePager — a library-focused one-page website for libraries, attempting to focus the library on providing useful information rather than a lot of it. There’s a lesson here for almost every institution with a website. (via Nina Simon)
- Max Levchin’s Lessons Learned — some resonant ones: You can have successful teams where people hate but deeply respect each other; the opposite (love but not respect among team members) is a recipe for disaster.
We become effective publishers when we carefully package and layer our information.
Headlines matter. They're always visible to a scan or a search, while other information — like decks and leads — are active in far fewer contexts.